Halloween is the one time of year when everybody lets their freak flag fly — without shame or inhibition. When skeletons, zombies and witches parade the leaf-strewn streets and conglomerate upon doorsteps, grinning beneath grotesque masks, posing that timeless benevolent threat:
Trick or treat?
Halloween/autumn is my favorite time of year. It always has been. I enjoy it so much that the Halloween spirit remains within me all year round — bubbling inside the discombobulated contents of my cranium-cauldron.
When October 31st approaches, it’s as if the world has at last accepted me with open arms. These ghouls, skeletons, zombies, witches, mummies, warlocks, extra-terrestrials, demons, ghosts — they are outsiders, just like me! The wide gulf between myself and society has dissipated, if only during the month of October.
Halloween. All Hallows Day. Samhain. Dia de los Muertos. One may know it by many names, yet the main themes remain constant, like a Jungian archetype. Let us pose one of these ‘main themes’ in the following question:
In what other time of year does the world so laughingly, so light-heartedly, embrace the concept of death?
This is what I suspect, on a subconscious level, we are doing when we celebrate Halloween. Although the average citizen will admit to merely being interested in dressing up, trick or treating, playing games, and enjoying parties — there is, I believe, something grander happening on a deeper level.
Look all around you. Feast your eyes upon the paper skeletons in the drug store window. The great orange jack-o-lanterns upon your neighbor’s doorstep. Behold their yellow glowing expressions! Some of them are full of menace and fright, others of laughter. Hear the children going door to door, chiming and knocking and begging for candy. Only when you look at them, you catch yourself looking twice! They’re hardly children at all. They’re ghouls, vampires, witches – in short, they are mystical, dead things walking the streets.
These disguises are symbols of death. When we put on a mask, wear a costume, or apply face paint, we are entertaining the idea of our demise. We are overcoming the fear that lies deep down within the psyche of every human being. We are embracing that fear, while elevating it with laughter and joy. For once, death sits lambasted upon our shoulders and is rallied through the city streets like a champ!
Remember: one cannot be scared of monsters if one, at least temporarily, becomes a monster. What concept does the monster tease the children with while lurking beneath their bed, threatening to grab their ankles?
Death, of course. Always death.
And as children and adults alike dress-up as death-symbols, the leaves of all the blazing trees fall to the ground. Farmers all across the land bring out their scythes, though none of them are wearing black goods, and none are so grim.
Yet it is harvest time. Let us reap what we have sown!
This year my fiancé, Tessandra, my step-daughter, Rosemary and I visited the Spirit Halloween store in Stillwater, Minnesota. As we selected our costumes, I looked all about, observing the macabre. It’s as if the stuff were splashed upon the walls and shelves like wild blood.
Everywhere one see’s delightful objects of death; plastic spiders; Styrofoam tombstones; little packages of eyeballs, fingers, ears!; larger-than-life-sized inflatable monsters; gigantic bags of cobwebs; costumes for every character imaginable; an assortment of rubber masks, some of them deliciously ghoulish, rendered with such impeccable detail that one is bound to recognize it for what it is – a modern art form.
A plethora of customers peruse this vast commercial inscape of hauntings. Each person seems to be smiling. I pick out a skull mask, made of rubber, and it smells of childhood. I put it on. Then I put my thick-framed glasses over the eyeholes. Rosemary dances around the isles, wearing a giant replica of a sloth’s head. Tessandra picks out items for dressing up as a scarecrow.
And, fundamentally, are not all costumes serving the function of a scarecrow — only, instead of warding off those pesky feeding ravens, we are warding off death?
No food for the worms, my dear, because we are the worms! Let us roll, wriggle, and writhe! Let us truly live our lives! Full of passion and fire, like those dying leaves of autumn!
And as we embrace (and thus, temporarily conquer) our deaths, we are never so alive!
An Historical Aside
How did this bizarre holiday begin? Where in the world did it originate? And for why?
The origins of Halloween are complex, mixing a variety of cultures and tradition. It began with the end-of-harvest celebration by the Gaelic pagans, a festival known as Samhain (pronounced sow-in). It was believed that on Samhain, the veil between this world and the Otherworld was thinnest, allowing for spirits to cross over with ease, and vice versa – humans could enter the Otherworld, too.
By 9 CE, the Roman Catholic Church, rather than attempting to stomp out this ancient tradition of the Celts and pagans, decided it would be easier to merge it with All Saints Day (also known as All Hollows Day), a holiday in honor of Christian saints. All Saints Day formed the season of ‘Allhallowtide’, beginning with All Saints Eve on October 31st, All Saints Day on November 1st, and All Souls Day on November 2nd.
Although Halloween is largely a result of Samhain and All Hollow’s Day merging influences, there remains other celebrations of the dead all over the globe. For example:
On October 31st, Mexicans celebrate Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), wherein family and friends celebrate and pray for the deceased. Platters of food and bottles of liquor are left out on the doorstep in the night to appease hungry and thirsty souls. Day of the Dead celebrations stretch back over 2,000 years — an invention of the Aztecs, whom dedicated the festivities to a goddess, or, “the Lady of the Dead”.
The Hungry Ghost Festival is a Buddhist/Taoist tradition which celebrates the ghosts of dead ancestors, whom are believed to return from the ‘Lower Realm’ to visit the living. This festival, also referred to as, “Ghost Month”, occurs in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Taiwan. Similar festivals occur in Japan, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka.
More annual festivals are held around the globe. Festivals which signify a change of season and commemorate the dead.
Note: For further reading about the history of Halloween, I recommend the highly informative book, Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween by Lisa Morton.
Like a puddle of black ink absorbed into a white napkin, Halloween has stained the fabric of my consciousness. Though there comes a time to put away childish things, the child within the man never fully dies. The fear of death, too, never dies.
Halloween, moreso than Christmas or Easter, moreso than Thanksgiving or New Year’s Eve, rejuvenates the inner-child. In fact, the reason why adult Halloween costumes exist in the first place is because adults want to re-live those cherished moments from childhood. Nostalgia races through the veins, pops the head and transforms grown men and women into vampires, zombies, werewolves (and sexy nurses!) for the duration of a single night. The inner-child, at least within the custom of dressing up, gets a chance to breathe.
Now, this doesn’t mean that on Halloween night I run around naked waving a blue crayon and muttering strange incantations about Bat-Man (now wouldn’t that be frightening, even by standards of Halloween?). Not at all. Yet there are fond memories which begin to stir my addled brain. The warm memories of chilly Halloween nights go to my head like a glass of champagne. Only the champagne is orange and green, with bubbles frothy like a witch’s cauldron. Perhaps, if one were wise, one wouldn’t imbibe.
But whomever said I was wise? Allow me to illustrate a very personal, warm history of my most memorable October 31sts growing up in Northwestern Wisconsin, USA . . .
Four to Five years old.
I had not yet come close to growing in all of my teeth. Whenever I smiled, my mouth resembled the goofy jack-o-lantern sitting atop our weathered porch steps.
I remember: a plush orange jack-o-lantern, stuffed with cotton, hanging above me. Six green spider legs dangled from its rotund sides. A smile of yellow triangles were stitched across its face, complete with a triangle nose and oval eyes. Its string was attached to the ceiling. I’d jump up, high as I could, and yank on one of its green legs. It began to make noise, to vibrate and wriggle! This thing was magical. I jumped up and pulled on the legs over and over, never tiring of watching it dance and twitch.
A sunbeam, bright yellow, shone through the porch window upon the hanging toy. The sunbeam was warm. I stood in front of it along with the dancing jack-o-lantern. We were friends, Jack ‘O and I — sharing the sun before it set and the land was full of dark.
Five to six years old.
Handful of guts. They were orange and stringy, with flat, oval seeds falling onto the newspaper laid over the kitchen linoleum. I managed to remove most of the inner goo, but Mom took a plastic scoop and got all the tiny gobs I’d neglected.
I told Mom I wanted the face to look like the one from the cover of our VHS copy of John Carpenter’s Halloween. She did her best. It turned out great. In went the tea-lite candles. The faces glowed from within. Then we brought the jack-o-lanterns to the front porch, and sat them upon the steps.
The flame within the jack-o-lanterns excited me. I jumped up and down, dancing like that stuffed pumpkin on a string. Inside the hollowed pumpkins, the flame of Halloween spirit burned bright. That flame caught fire to my imagination, lit it up, and illuminated my dark dreams.
Seven to eight years old.
We lived in the country, in a century-old old farmhouse that was weathered and beaten and, truth be told, appeared quite haunted. This is the house I grew up in. It’s the one I’d thought I’d seen a ghost in. It’s the house I read and slept and wept in. But living out in the Wisconsin woods didn’t serve for quality trick-or-treating. There weren’t many houses for which to go door-to-door.
As every child knows, doors are the life-blood of tricks and treats.
My parents drove me in their van out to a neighborhood I’d never been to. We went from door to door, my long black cape flowing out behind me. The sun was setting, but I wasn’t cold — I’d been instructed to wear a sweater beneath my costume. The candy rattled when dropped in black and orange plastic buckets. An immensely satisfying sound.
For anyone passing by, I had this to say: “I am Count Dracula! I bid you welcome!”
The custom of ‘Trick or Treat’ has its origins rooted in ancient history, perhaps as far back as ancient Greece! Although it is more commonly regarded as originating with the festival of Samhain, wherein children would impersonate the dead, and go from door to door, singing tunes and performing for small treats. During the Christian season of ‘Allhallowtide’, children would sing and perform for ‘soul-cakes’ (merely small, round cakes) often in return for prayers.
Alternative names for this activity are “mumming” or “guising”. The custom itself didn’t become popular in the United States until the mid-1930’s. It was an activity encouraged by parents and teachers as an indirect means of discouraging the more mischievous/destructive activities children often undertook on Halloween — also sometimes referred to as, “Mischief Night”.
I came home from school one October evening and discovered paper pumpkins and witches plastered upon the window of the old farmhouse. This meant Mom had decorated the house without me. Yet she knew how much I loved decorating! How could she do it all on her own, without my impeccable taste for the Halloween aesthetic? Well, maybe she’d only put up the window décor . . . I raced into the house, tossing my heavy backpack into the corner with a thump.
To my great disappointment, the entire house had been decorated! I expressed my disapproval of this, then got over it pretty quick. After all, there were orange and black colors all over the walls, and cobwebs, and black cats, and stuffed ghosts, and a dancing Frankenstein’s Monster with green eyes that lit up at the touch of a yellow button and danced to ‘the monster mash’.
A boy of my temperament couldn’t be unhappy in such an environment for long.
14 to 16 years-old.
I was alone this Halloween night, although not lonely. I was too old to trick-or-treat, or so I believed. I burned away the hours within the sanctuary of my room, watching horror films on a fat Toshiba television. Night of the Living Dead. The Wolf-Man. John Carpenter’s Halloween. Then, as the red sun dawned upon the horizon, I finished up watching the original, Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
At film’s end, Sally Hardesty was driven away in the back of a pick-up truck, escaping Leatherface’s ravenous chainsaw in a matter of seconds. She was bloody from head-to-toe and laughing manically from a cold, mental snap. The sunset shone upon her blood-matted head, then cut to credits.
I looked out the window, at the rising sun, grateful I was not Sally Hardesty. Then I went to bed and slept most of November 1st away. All without a care in the world.
I didn’t even have any nightmares. I never did. I remain most at peace with everything macabre.
22 Years Old.
Tessandra, Rosemary, and I moved out of Creekside Apartments into a house on Jefferson Road. The house was crimson red with a brown roof. Every street and avenue around us was named after some American patriot or other. Washington Avenue. Lincoln Street. Marshall Street. I was grateful to be living on the street named after the best of the founding fathers – Thomas Jefferson.
In front of our house is a military memorial. Some days, I look out the front bay window over at the remembrance stones with their chiseled names and think, what if they never buried the bodies in the city cemetery? What if they buried them here, beneath this strip of green land with its circle of honorable flags? What if they were raised from the dead? What if they came shambling down the street this very moment?
Such are the thoughts of a writer – purely deranged. Purely lost in the world of, “What if?”
It was our first year in the house. We’d only just gotten comfortable. All the leaves from the black maple trees in our yard were falling from the branches, littering the ground. I spent many, many hours raking these leaves and placing them in gargantuan paper bags. By the time I had the majority of the leaves in the front and backyard stuffed into the bags, there was a lucky thirteen of them.
I stuffed as many bags as I could into the trunk of my white Buick. Then I loaded a few more bags into the backseat. They were so tall and wide, I couldn’t even see out the back window. I drove my carload of leaves to the local compost center.
I was not expecting this compost to be magical, but it was. And in no way am I exaggerating.
I drove past the yellow ochre fields with the spindling leaves falling from the trees and the chilly wind pushing against all sides of the Buick. I drove through an open gate and down a gravel road and parked at the center of the compost dump. I got out of the car.
All around me were immense, beautiful hills of dead leaves. Pumpkin orange, crimson red, banana yellow, rusty brown and all the spectrum of the autumn rainbow were featured in the blazing colors of the hills. Jack-o-lanterns were tossed and smashed here and there, their faces rotting and drying out in the sun in a glory of death. Flies buzzed.
The sun was going down, spreading colors to the electric sky. White, puffy clouds became inked in pink and red, shrouding the hills of leaves and pumpkin guts with brilliant aura.
It was a Halloween Wasteland, dazzling in a rarefied ruby.
And I could not help but think, what if . . . what if I saw someone’s hand, pale as a lily, stretched out beneath one of the big hills of leaves, perhaps beneath a particularly soggy patch? What would I do? Would I call the police straight away, or would I approach it first? See if the hand twitched upon my lightest touch. See if it grabbed my ankle . . .
23 Years Old.
The haunted farmhouse where I grew up had been abandoned and long since burned down. This year’s jack-o-lanterns were to be made at my parent’s new house, still located in a rural area, not within woods, but surrounded by cornfields and farms with horses grazing the grassy fields. Tessandra, Rosemary and I spent the evening with my parents and my younger siblings, gutting pumpkins, carving faces, using the best of our creative abilities to turn them into cute, slightly maniacal characters.
Then we got dressed up and went out to dinner, then to the Hudson Cinema to watch Goosebumps 2. We thought this might be a healthier outing than ‘trick-or-treating’, and it was. Although the film wasn’t great, ten-year-old Rosemary seemed to have a good time, and her excitement was palpable.
It was the same excitement she expressed while dancing around a few weeks back with a giant’s sloth’s head upon her shoulders! The same excitement that remains buried within my child’s heart, only to be rekindled by a spark of Rosemary’s happiness.
And I think back to being six years old, admiring the handiwork of our jack-o-lanterns upon the weathered porch steps; their gentle, maniacal grins glowing from within.
That is where all true hallows glow.
Happy frights to you, dear reader, and
A Happy Halloween.